MANCHESTER, N.H. — She faces 100 lashes for marrying a non-Muslim and death by hanging for refusing to recant her Christian faith. She is imprisoned in Sudan along with her toddler son, and her execution has been postponed only until she can give birth to and nurse a second child.
The heart-wrenching story of Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, a 27-year-old pregnant Sudanese woman, is rippling through New Hampshire, the adopted home of her husband, galvanizing activists, neighbors, and politicians to call for her rescue.
Ishag, 27, ran afoul of Islamic shariah law by marrying Daniel Wani, now a US citizen who lives in Manchester, N.H., with his brother, Gabriel. The family’s plight has captivated the small but tight-knit community of Sudanese immigrants here, many of whom fled religious persecution and strife in Sudan.
“The regime in Sudan, they can do whatever they want to do,” said Pastor Monyroor Teng, who heads the Sudanese Evangelical Covenant Church in Manchester. “We’re all still wondering, how is she going to survive this?”
Ishag, who is more than eight months pregnant, was shackled at the ankles when her husband saw her in prison, Wani has told media outlets. Other media outlets have described Ishag as a physician.
“Meriam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag’s sentencing is an abhorrent violation of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms,” US Senator Jeanne Shaheen said in a statement. “No one should be treated as a criminal for exercising the right of religious choice.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the State Department said the United States is “fully engaged diplomatically in the case,” and had communicated “strong concern at high levels of the Sudanese government.” The statement reiterated an earlier US call for Sudan to respect international and Sudanese laws protecting freedom of religion.
Officials from the US Embassy in Khartoum have attended all public court proceedings in the case, the statement said.
The State Department also said it had received concerned messages from “many, many Americans,” an acknowledgment of growing public outrage over Ishag’s case.
But Republican Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Roy Blunt of Missouri pushed the government further, scolding the departments of State and Homeland Security for ambiguity after failing to get a response from Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
“Due to the nature of this case, it is critical that there is clarity between your departments regarding the status of the family and their previous requests for assistance from the United States,” the two senators wrote to Homeland Security last week. “Any gaps in communication between the departments during this time are simply unacceptable.”
Noting that none of the government statements has “mentioned that Daniel Wani is a US citizen,” they added, “we are concerned that questions about the citizenship of Meriam’s son, Martin, and her unborn child are preventing needed high-level engagement from the departments.”
The case centers on a charge of apostasy, or abandonment of the faith. Ishag, who had a Muslim father, was raised by an Orthodox Christian mother as a Christian. She married Wani in a formal church ceremony in 2011. But last year members of her father’s family tracked her down, complaining about her marriage to a Christian and saying she had been given a Muslim name at birth. She was charged with adultery because the court refused to recognize her marriage to a non-Muslim man.
Muslim women in Sudan are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims, though Muslim men can marry outside their faith. Children follow their father’s religion by law. Conversion to other religions is punishable by death. The court added the charge of apostasy when she maintained that she was a Christian, not a Muslim.
After being convicted two weeks ago in a court in the capital Khartoum, she was given four days to repent and escape death, according to her lawyer, Al-Shareef Ali al-Shareef Mohammed. She was sentenced after that grace period. Under her sentence, she would be permitted to give birth and nurse her baby for two years before being lashed 100 times and hanged.
Amnesty International has condemned the sentence and, along with other organizations, petitioned for her release.
“We feel like the whole world is standing behind Meriam,” said Teng, the pastor. “We are the same community. If there is no help, they will kill her.”
At the pastor’s small, storefront church on Sunday, a dozen people bowed their heads and prayed in Arabic for the safety of Wani and his wife. In the next room, children playfully squealed.
Zakaria Aging, who came to the United States from Sudan in 1999, recalled that Wani met his wife through her sister. They had initially communicated on Facebook and Skype.
“Then he went back to see her,” Aging said.
Men from the Sudan who are US citizens often go back to marry, Aging said. Sudanese immigrants want their children to be raised steeped in their culture, Teng said, but pressure to assimilate is great. Marrying a woman from the Sudan and bringing her to the United States is a cultural safeguard and a way of giving the woman a better, more secure life.
Those who know Wani in New Hampshire are having difficulty learning whether he is making any progress on her case in Sudan.
“When we call him and ask him, he doesn’t tell us the truth,” Aging said outside the church. “In Sudan, in any country, if you say something bad about the country, the next day you’ll be in trouble. There is nothing we can do except prayer. That’s why every Sunday we come and we pray here.”
New Hampshire’s two US senators, Ayotte, a Republican, and Shaheen, a Democrat, joined 17 other bipartisan cosponsors in filing a Senate resolution last week, condemning the death sentence and calling for the immediate release of Ishag and her son. The resolution also encourages the US government to support religious freedom in Sudan, both by requiring the government of Sudan to abide by international standards of freedom of religion or belief and by writing its new constitution to protect religious freedom.
Shaheen also joined US Representative Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire in urging the State Department to “use every means of leverage at its disposal to ensure the release of this young woman and her son.”
“She has done nothing wrong,” they wrote. “ No man or woman anywhere should be sentenced to death by hanging for exercising the basic right of religious freedom.”
A spokeswoman for the fourth member of New Hampshire’s delegation, US Representative Ann McLane Kuster, said she, too, has called for Ishag’s release and will continue to work with the delegation toward that end.
Kuster “believes this injustice is a profound and inexcusable violation of human rights, and our government needs to lend its full strength to saving this young mother,” her spokeswoman said in a statement.